FanPost

"Game One? I'm Afraid I Don't Recall any 'Game One', Senator"

Put on your best crazy prospector voice as you say with me, "Reckon we got er-selves a humdinger of a pistol shootin', rootin'-tootin' SERIES now!" If you like hoop at all and that game didn't have you up out of your seat half the time, reach over and give the heart monitor machine a whack--you might not still be alive.

Back and forth it went, from one run to another, one momentum shift to the next. It took some superhuman play from some seemingly superhuman ballers, and a whole lot of overcome adversity, but the Blazers now have what they came to get, because honestly--when you listen to them talk, they're not thinking about championships or WCF appearances or even beating the Lakers in Round 2. They came to get playoff experience, and an understanding of what it takes to win.

They now have that understanding, but I think it still suprises this young team just how much intensity is required to compete for and win a playoff game in the NBA. After the game Brandon Roy joked, Bush-esquely, that it was "hard work to win playoff games." All I ask the team is no "Playoffs Accomplished" banners before they leave for Houston, OK?

Seriously, even if the Blazers lose both games in Houston and then can't stay alive in Game 5 (tickets available 10AM tomorrow, but ONLY through trailblazers.com), this will have been an eminently valuable season for the team's future. Not only do they now grasp just how easy it is to get blown out if you're not loaded for bear from the git-go, they know it's possible to regroup, retain a high level of energy and mostly just go out and play.

That said, I think this team now not only has the tools to win a road game in this series, but the moxie and focus of determination. Houston, while being a beast at home in the regular season (who in the West isn't?), has struggled recently in some key playoff games, which might help explain the number of first-round exits they've had. I actually think with current circumstances the chances are actually better than 50-50 that the Blazers will get that homecourt recovery accomplished. 

{Some of the keys, below} 

 

 

The biggest thing that kept the Blazers in this game turned out to be their ability to keep level heads throughout all of the valleys in the sine wave that was Game 2. First they had to withstand the role of Yao Ming being played by Ron Artest, who buried shot after shot in the first quarter, including a staggering fadeaway over Travis that you can't really call "over," since Outlaw fell down. to make it 24-18 and give Artest a shweet 15 for the quarter. 

You had to be asking yourself at this point, "Is this going to turn out exactly the same as before, just with a different player sparking the rout?" I wouldn't say I lapsed into despair, but I was certainly wary of watching the Blazers fall into the same trap as on Saturday. But one thing was different; Artest's shots were generally further away and better contested than Yao's were.

I suppose the other difference is that Artest can be a dangerous shooter--with danger that cuts both ways. If he gets hot, the rest of the team better begin figuring out ways to get the ball from him when the weather turns inevitably cold. That happened tonight, as by the second half Artest had gone cold but no one told his brain, as he kept launching long-range ill-advised shots to keep the Blazers in it.

So the Blazers really could have tanked it right there and said Oh Well, Thought We Were a Playoff Team a Year Early. Three things happened shortly thereafter that scared away such defeatist thinking: 

  • Dikembe Motumbo's knee failed on him, which is sad for a great player and ambassador for the league, but which could turn out to be huge if it leads to Yao fatigue
  • LaMarcus hit his second shot of the game after flailing for most of Game One, a patented fadeaway on Scola that seemed to break the ice for him and signal that Luis wasn't going to hose him again this game
  • Rudy anticipated a Brooks pass beautifully, intercepted it at the top of the key and canned the fast break bucket to tie the score at 24-24.

There was a looooong way to go still, but the first test had been passed. And when Brandon Roy closed the quarter off an LMA block of Brooks at the other end by draining a top-key-three with time running out to make it 28-26, for a minute there it almost looked like the Blazers might even take control of the game.

No such luck. In the second quarter it went back and forth, forth and back. Neither team built a lead of more than four points, and there were multiple lead changes and ties throughout. But another theme was developing, one which persisted the rest of the game: call it the LaBrancus Attack.

For the quarter, the Blazers put up 25 points. Rudy hit a jumpshot, Travis nailed one to start the period--and the rest of the scoring was from one of the studs, 21 points worth. LA hit four straight jumpers and six overall in the quarter--one of them a fader of the kind that makes you scream Nooooo!....whew. They were important shots, as much for LA's psyche as the points they brought; in Game One Aldridge lamented his abandonment of the outside game, so it was dynamite to see him stretch the court as per usual. 

The beginning of the third was another lurching, stomach-turning few minutes, as the Blazers started extremely cold despite getting solid open looks. Roy and LA clanged a couple times before Roy was able to drive the lane and bring Portland back within three at 56-59. Scola answered back with four more however, and the Rockets built their biggest lead of the game at 7.

Roy must have sensed the slippage danger as well; as the Rockets (primarily ex-Blazer Von Wafer and Kevin Lowry) had figured out in the first half, a drive down the middle of the lane with a little contact would almost assuredly earn you two shots, so Brandon went to work.

With a little help from Blake and Aldridge, near the end of the quarter the Blazers had taken their own 7-point lead with 1:40 left, and once again it seemed that maybe they were ready to pull away or at least maintain a lead in that neighborhood. Nope: Brooks reverse at the rim, Rudy turnover and a Brooks three, then an unfortunate pass that went too high and Artest took for the jam, and we were tied again at 72. Sigh.

Rudy opened the fourth with a pretty and desperately needed three, and then Blake found LaMarcus for an alley-oop jam that got the crowd a little nutsy and put the Blazers ahead by five. Wafer came back with an And One and then a dunk of his own, and just like that it was once again tied at 77. Be still, my palpating heart! What an exciting, closely contested game--but it was ulcer-inducing. 

It went that way for most of the quarter, and with 4:46 left the Rockets held a slim 89-87 lead. It would be their last, but who could tell at the time? Joel Przybilla had gone out moments before with his fifth foul, bringing in Greg Oden, who also had five at the time. Without a center, the Blazers were dead, and Joel needed rest. Could Oden stay in the game?

Well, the answer was actually no: on a ridiculous call in which Aaron Brooks set a pick by backing into Oden in the lane, the big rookie fouled out for the first time in a playoff game. (Enjoy the memory, buddy). But what he did before he left may have saved their season. On a Roy miss that bounced high but short off the left side of the rim, Oden came in from mid-lane quickly and in one motion jumped, grabbed the ball and rammed it home. The crowd went....apeshit!

But he wasn't done. In a bold move that risked his 6th foul, he poked the ball away from Artest from behind and Blake finished with a nice layin to put the Blazers on top. Outlaw hit the same key fourth quarter jumper he's nailed about a zillion times, and then Roy dropped what looked like the dagger--a falling down, time-running-out, blown-up-offensive-set three that once again tizzified the audience. And surely when Outlaw anticipated a Brooks pass, tipped it out front and then took it home for the big jam to give the Blazers a 98-90 lead, that was it, right?

Well, not exactly. Aaron Brooks scored 11 points in the final 27 seconds to force Portland to make a bunch of foul shots, but they did and that was the game. Not having timeouts killed the Rockets down the stretch, but they ALMOST found a way to give themselves a chance for the win.

So the Blazers can pocket this one: that's how you win a playoff game. Stay focused, be agressive and you'll get the calls, don't despair when you get down, don't get cute when you're ahead. And for heaven's sake, be confident--you made the playoffs and got homecourt for a reason.

The Blazers will surely lose another playoff game this season--at least three more at some point in fact--but I guarantee you it won't be because Portland was too in awe of everything to come out and really play. And that was the other goal: put Game One in a lockbox, bury it and pretend it never happened, because it was damn sure not going to happen again. 

[crossposted at Loaded Orygun...]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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